Clevelanders Navigating Loneliness, Social Isolation During Pandemic

Someone typing at a computer with a mask on the table beside them. They are fuzzy and out of focus but the mask is clear and sharp.
Though the stay-at-home order has been lifted, many Ohioans are still coping with isolation and limited social interaction. [rfranca / Shutterstock]
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It’s been one year since Gov. Mike DeWine issued a stay-at-home order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Though the order has expired, the state is still calling on Ohioans to limit social interaction.

The change brought on increased feelings of isolation and loneliness in many households. For anyone living alone during the pandemic, staying at home meant losing almost all in-person interaction with others.

Widow and retired journalist Margie Frazer moved to a new neighborhood last March. She’d been looking forward to meeting neighbors and exploring the local parks, but when the pandemic hit, opportunities to get out into the community disappeared.

“I just really hit the wall, because Crocker Park was shut down and I couldn’t meet any neighbors,” Frazer said. “I tried to drag out the unpacking of the boxes. But even then, we had no idea that this would be going on for a year.”

And there was something Frazer couldn’t help noticing whenever she went out.

“If I went for a walk in the Metroparks, everybody would seem to be there in couples or in little families, and that was such a reminder of being alone that I didn’t go for walks anymore,” Frazer said. “It was too depressing.”

Frazer also worried about her mother, who lives in a nursing home. The facility limited visits and cut down on recreational activities. Her mom didn’t have the social life she was used to and was relying heavily on phone calls and video chats with her for support, Frazer said.

“You constantly were trying to go, ‘Well, that’s not so bad,’ or ‘We have this,’ and after a while you learn to just listen. Don’t try to argue her out of her feelings,” Frazer said. “I think that for me, keeping my mother’s spirits propped up was probably the hardest part.”

The nursing home dining hall opened up earlier this month, Frazer said, and began offering exercise classes. Even small changes like that are a breakthrough for her mother, she said.

Frazer has spent much of quarantine catching up on books, movies and television, and she’s looking forward to when things can go back to normal. In the meantime, she’s looking into new hobbies like birdwatching, and she’s checking in with family through regular video calls.

“You just think, not what I can’t do, but well, what can I do? What are the things I can add into my life that would make it more interesting and satisfying?” Frazer said. “Living by yourself is okay, but it needs that balance of seeing people, of thinking on Monday, ‘What’s my schedule for the week?’ and actually seeing something on there.”

A Warm Voice of Support

Frazer isn’t the only one dealing with feelings of isolation. The Warm Line is a service from Thrive Peer Support and funded by the Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services (ADAMHS) Board of Cuyahoga County that connects people struggling with mental illness and addiction. The line has seen a 30 percent increase in calls during the pandemic, with a spike around winter holidays.

“We're getting a lot of calls because resources are closed. No free meals at the churches. And so they're looking for food, looking for help,” said Michelle Shaffer, a Warm Line coordinator. “A lot of our people, they attend AA meetings. Those are also closed. So they're looking for support.”

The ADAMHS Board increased funding to allow the Warm Line to operate 24 hours a day during the pandemic in order to meet demand. Having support systems are key to maintaining recovery and handling mental illness, Shaffer said, where isolation can take its toll.

“It plays on their, you know, their mental health issues and, you know, it put a stop to a lot of things people do to help with their mental health issues,” Shaffer said. “So we're there for them.”

Alone Together

Even those living with others can struggle with the lack of outside interaction. Cleveland-based artist Linda Zolten Wood has spent the last year at home with her husband and child. While they have one another to rely on, Zolten Wood said, they’ve struggled with being cut off from friends and neighbors. They’ve tried to find new ways to spend time together, she said.

“We’re trying to cook interesting things because we get bored with what mom cooks all the time,” Zolten Wood said. “So it’s kind of cool to see my kid getting creative independently.”

Remote schooling has made it harder for her child to socialize, and Zolten Wood said, even she struggled with not being able to meet friends outdoors during the summer months. Therapy has made a difference in combatting feelings of isolation, she said.

“It’s a very strange, pressured, very strange situation,” Zolten Wood said, “and it’s not necessarily easy to take care of on your own.”

The family has also adopted a guinea pig, and the extra activity has helped keep everyone busy.

“This little tiny furball has given us purpose every day, to set up a little floor time pen and let her run around,” Zolten Wood said. “It has been a little chunk of joy that I would never have expected, that this tiny little thing could make us fall head over heels in love with it.”

Four Legs of Emotional Support

Pets have been a lifeline for many in the past year. In Cleveland’s Stockyards neighborhood, Minister Gordon Martin operates Prince of Peace Outreach and Deliverance Ministries. Its program, Quiet Family Members Need More Help, delivers goods to residents who don’t feel comfortable going out in public due to the current health risks.

“Some of them were elderly and disabled and therefore had lots of fears of being exposed to other individuals during the pandemic because they didn’t want to come into contact with COVID,” Martin said. “They had really developed a dependency on their animal companions.”

Many of the recipients were relying on the deliveries to care for their pets, Martin said. The program has expanded to include pet supplies to reflect the importance of animal companions in combatting isolation, he said. That includes flea treatments, food and other care items.

“It made us happy to see that we were helping them, you know, get past or just helping them have a better feeling with isolation that they couldn't see their human family members and friends,” Gordon said. “We wanted to make sure they didn’t have to worry about how their animal companions were going to eat.”

The Quiet Family Members Need More Help program is funded in part through a grant from Neighborhood Connections, which funds community-based aid programs. The nonprofit organization received federal COVID-19 rapid response funding, and in turn provided various programs with up to $5,000 to help combat the effects of the pandemic in their neighborhood, including social isolation and loneliness.

Neighborhood Connections has awarded more than $839,000 in grants since the start of the pandemic, said Associate Director Lila Mills, which is around $200,000 more than the typical year. The organization aims to increase a sense of community in the neighborhoods of Greater Cleveland, she said.

“If we recognize the talents around us, it lessens the burden, our own isolation. It connects us to other people,” Mills said. “There are these small things that we can do together that are going to keep us from being socially isolated. And they’re even more important during this time when we may be more isolated than normal.”

Programs the organization supports have helped with grocery deliveries, laundry services and other necessary practices during the pandemic. Some programs have come back to ask for additional funding, Mills said, showing a demand for the work they’re doing.

“I think for us, the hope is that this idea of resident action, people power, grassroots power continues to spread and continues to be increasingly valued. And because we think that's just so important for thriving neighborhoods and certain communities,” Mills said.

Friendship in a Bubble

Building connections within communities is helping some Cleveland residents cope with the pandemic. Early on, single mother Kathryn Metz formed a quarantine bubble with another family in her neighborhood to help balance childcare and work. Sharing the responsibility has made the last year easier, she said.

“We really lucked out,” Metz said. “We enjoyed each other's company beforehand, but all of a sudden it was like a friendship fast forward.”

The families swap babysitting duty and visit each other for dinner and playdates. Their children aren’t old enough for school yet, Metz said, so they haven’t had to juggle the demands of remote learning.

“We talked about, you know, why don't we trade child care and let's see how we can do this,” Metz said. “And what grew from that wasn’t just that our daughters, who are nine days apart, could have someone to hang out with, but also our adult friendships.”

When day cares opened back up in August, Metz and her friends didn’t need to rely on each other as much to balance childcare. But they still meet multiple times a week and visit.

“Having someone else's house to go to and having regular adult conversation, especially since I'm a single parent, it made a huge difference for me,” Metz said. “It's not that I don't miss my other friends. I miss my other friends. But I was also building these other friendships that I didn't expect to grow so deeply.”

Metz lost her father during the pandemic and has struggled with working from home. But the support and assistance from her friends has helped her navigate the pandemic, she said.

“Having a death during a pandemic is a different story. But other than that, I've been really fortunate with, you know, all these stories of struggles, of balance of work and kids and stuff,” Metz said. “I’m so fortunate because I haven’t had that.”

After a year alone, ongoing vaccine distribution is a light at the end of the tunnel for many Clevelanders. Margie Frazer was vaccinated earlier this month and said she’s excited to spend time with loved ones again.

“The great liberation is at hand, and I just can’t wait,” Frazer said.

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